Review: Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire

Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire

Infamous nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky recently passed away. Fans of online alternate history know him as the main character of a timeline-turned-ebook called Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire. In it, Yeltsin is killed during the August Coup and Zhirinovsky ends up in control of the USSR-turned-“Union of Independent States”, with the 1990s going from mostly peaceful to mostly not peaceful.

What this does right is actually using the “snippets of fake newspapers” formats very well. There are elements of drama that are well done, and the whole thing seems like a way to tell a story rather than a way to avoid writing a narrative. However, the biggest issue is the tone, which can go from too serious to too goofy and back at the drop of a hat.

Furthermore, while it’s not intended to be the most “plausible” alternate history, there were more than a few times when my suspension of disbelief didn’t hold up. Zhirinovsky is portrayed as a wild man who barely wins even with dirty tricks, yet he somehow has the political pull to wrestle something as powerful as the Russian arms industry into a 180 degree shift in policy (a so-called “billion Kalashnikovs and one nuke approach). And of course, him getting to power is ultra-contrived to begin with.

But by the standards of online alternate history, this is a good story. It has a proper beginning and end, and is better paced.

VTOLs and Airships

Technically speaking, lighter-than-air airships that have the ability to rise vertically just by dropping ballast are VTOLs. But a lot has struck me about how these heavier-than-air contraptions should be, but mostly aren’t, a staple of alternate history the way airships are. Oh, in science fiction they appear in force (see the Orcas from Command and Conquer and Vertibirds from Fallout), but in regular AH, not so much.

VTOL craft run a gamut from simple (conventional helicopters) to ultra-complex. After normal rotorcraft you have so-called “compound helicopters” like the cancelled Cheyenne that have additional horizontal engines to make them go faster. Then you have tilt-rotors/wings like the V-22. After those there are airplanes with dedicated lift engines. Then you have Harrier-style thrust vectored craft. Perhaps the most complex proposal was a giant Beriev seaplane with literally dozens of lift engines.

VTOLs have been technically possible as long as aircraft themselves, but they’ve run into issues. Trading complexity and the problems that come with it, as well as other performance issues, for small advantages (mostly speed for helicopters and takeoff distance) is one problem. Another is stability, with computerized controls being almost necessary. Of course, another design with tradeoffs that has been underused despite being technically possible is…. lighter-than-air airships!

Yet while the presence of airships has become a cliche in alternate history circles, VTOLs have not been. Alternate history is full of Victorian zeppelins, not Vietnamese tilt-wings and jet-copters. If I had to give one reason why, I’d say it’s because of brand appearances. Zeppelins look like something from the past, therefore it’ll be “historic but with zeppelins”, aka alternate history, while VTOLs look futuristic, and therefore writers are more likely to just make a story with them pure science fiction (or sold as such).

Or it could just be genre inertia. But it’s a fascinating subject about fascinating vehicles all the same.

Review: The Churchill Memorandum

The Churchill Memorandum

Sean Gabb’s The Churchill Memorandum is an alternate history spy thriller taking place in a world where World War II was averted due to Hitler’s death in 1939, the libertarian British Empire rules strong-and the US has devolved into a dictatorship complete with a “Republican Guard”. It’s one of the hardest books to review.

See, this may be the most extreme example of “alternate history as a setting” I’ve seen. By itself, the book is nothing but a 51% installment in a genre that, while not disliked, isn’t my first choice. But the setting, oh boy. The setting combines a big dose of L. Neil Smith-style libertarian utopianism with a British version of “libertarian” nostalgia for something you’d think wouldn’t be appropriate. In this case, it’s THE EMPIRE. You can be forgiven for wondering “isn’t an empire using the power of the state to a great degree to suppress others”.

Anyway, the setting goes farther than that. Historical British politician Michael Foot is portrayed as a supervillain who dissolves his victims in pits full of acid. His associate in the League of Evil is Harold Macmillan.

This book is kind of like a 1980s hair band that dresses extravagantly but plays the most mundane pop. The surface is crazy, but what’s behind it isn’t really. Ok, except for Michael Foot’s Evil Tub of Acid. That has to count for something, right?

Review: American Secret Projects: Airlifters

American Secret Projects: Airlifters

Craig Kaston and George Cox’s two volume series on American airlifters is one of the main reasons for the recent fascination I’ve had with these cargo-bearing beasts. Like a lot of books in the series, both are excellent. However, one of the volumes outshines the other, though through no fault of the authors.

The first volume is well-written and illustrated, but it describes a time period where, for the most part, it’s just variations on big-bellied freighter aircraft. The second volume has a lot of those too, but also has weird shapes, VTOLS, napkin company projects that make Mukhamedov and Stavatti look like Boeing and Airbus, and so much more.

If you have to get one book, get the post-1961 volume. But both are well worthy of any aviation history enthusiast’s bookshelf. Fair warning-you may twist your brain into a pretzel trying to estimate just what some of these oddballs can and can’t transport. It’s what I’ve been doing a lot, and I have no regrets.

The Differences

Just as how Hector Bywater’s The Great Pacific War got a lot of specifics from the later conflict off but the general feel of a Japanese-American war completely right, I figured I’d look at my Soviet/Romanian War (which I’ve outlined) and see the differences.

  • First, the absolute biggest. Instead of being against an elected government and earning massive condemnation, this is against the odious regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. The prevailing outside sentiment would be sympathy for Romania’s people, but very little for their government.
  • Second, the force structure of the invaders is different and both stronger and weaker. Belarus has been replaced with Bulgaria, which has mobilized a gargantuan army in and of itself-albeit an army that still uses T-34s (really, there were units with those, as in Romania, up until the very end). Whereas the Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics, for the most part (especially in its Mobile Force units), is a lot deeper than what I’ve seen from the Russians IRL in terms of substantive modernization (where a lot of old equipment, and, more importantly, stuff like few night vision devices and still using unsecure commercial radios beneath their shiny digi-flora uniforms)
  • Third, the invasion is a lot smoother out of the gate (note that I’m not speculating on the ultimate outcome in real life as of now). This is because, if nothing else, Romania is a lot smaller, less populous, and the invasion force is a lot bigger. Oh, and said horrendous Romanian government leading to apathy rather than near-unified disdain.

However, one thing that did appear in fiction and fact is the use of high-risk to the point of questionable VDV (Airborne Forces) operations. Of course, given their prominence, this is of little real surprise. Also, writing this post was tough, as is anything in a fluid, confusing situation.

Review: American Secret Projects: Bombers

American Secret Projects: Bombers, Attack, and Anti-Submarine Aircraft

One of the American Secret Projects series, this book looks at air-to-surface planes from the end of World War II to Vietnam. Covering everything from mammoth strategic bombers to light propeller planes, it’s an ideal aviation niche history book. With lots of illustrations, the obscure become visible.

With this book you can see all the bizarre and erratic 1950s designs. You can see how the AX project that became the A-10 started off as just a rich man’s Skyraider. This is an excellent book for any aviation enthusiast.

Saddam’s Almost-Bomb

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had a legitimate nuclear weapons program that was, by most accounts, very close to building a functioning Fat Man-level device before the invasion of Kuwait. A draft nuclear operations manual was even made. For all intents and purposes, it was destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War and there was no serious attempt to restart it prior to 2003.

The WMD swing-and-miss isn’t really the subject of this post. It was a combination of the inherent untrustworthiness of the Iraqi regime (which still would have more than willing to make genuine WMDs), a desperate desire to avoid a false negative after 9/11, and a bizzare bluff aimed at Iran by a Saddam who was increasingly believing his own propaganda. I have increasingly believed that, after 1991 and especially after 2001, that the Iraq War, or at least the country undergoing a catastrophic meltdown (see the Syrian Civil War), would have been inevitable given that element and the inherent instability of it, but that’s for another time.

Anyway, the Iraqi design was a spherical implosion device centered around 15-18 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. The first incarnation of it was very wide (over a meter), with the big Tu-16 and Tu-22 bombers being the only delivery systems capable of dropping it. Later it shrank to the point where it could fit inside a ballistic missile, and active programs were focused on making longer-ranged missiles that could carry such a device. The yield is unknown and the only available references to them in open sources I’ve found are understandably redacted. One theory based on text size I’ve seen argued that the small design had the strength of only one kiloton and the big one three, which fits with the yield of early North Korean (pure test) designs. More generous estimates put it around 10-20. Regardless, it was unlikely to be more than low double digit kilotons in terms of blast strength. It’s worth noting that even the lowest-end estimate would still mean a radioactive version of the 2020 Beirut explosion.

Barring the invasion of Kuwait or other serious external interference, the program could have been up and churning out warheads by the mid-1990s. Of course, there would be serious external interference. Israel’s hyped attack on the Osirak reactor arguably owed more to the mania of Menachem Begin than any practical effect. Begin was the admitted inspiration for the supervillain Magneto (to give an idea of his temperament), and someone who embodied Alexander Wallace’s “hurt people hurt people” statement. Osirak was physically unsuited to producing weapons-grade material in quantity, and its destruction led to a much more hardened and dispersed program. Nonetheless, the Israelis would try.

Would they succeed? Would having the bomb actually lead to a calming effect, as argued by some? (Given the Kargil and Ussuri wars, I’m skeptical). As with everything involving the “devices”, there’s a thankfully small sample size to consider. There are many, many unknowns. But the atomic wolf was truly there.

Review: AlloAmericana

AlloAmericana: Myths and Legends From Other Americas

Alexander Wallace’s edited anthology of the folklore from different Americas is a treat. From Native American legends adopted by settlers to the West Coast from 17th century Japan to D. B. Cooper, this takes the reader through many a myth and legend. The collection of authors each brings something distinct and good to the table.

If I have any critiques, it’s that the short story collection format is only useful for a brief snapshot of a world. But that’s not the fault of the editors or authors, and some times this is all you need. I believe this is my favorite Sea Lion Press anthology to date.